Postcard from camp: Browns
Brandon Weeden could form a potent connection with second-year WR Greg Little
Browns will struggle in run defense until Phil Taylor returns from a torn pectoral
Even after going 4-12, the Browns face one of the toughest schedules in the NFL
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Albert Chen had to say about Browns camp in Berea, Ohio, which he visited on Aug. 2. Read all of our postcards here.
1. There's a good buzz here in Berea. (And a lot of No. 33 jerseys.) Forget that they were 4-12 last season. Forget that many experts have them as one of the worst teams in the league heading into this season. Cleveland fans are legitimately pumped for this team and this season -- the makeover has generated buzz around a team that hasn't won more than five games since 2007. The team's second practice in Berea drew a crowd of 4,200, littered with fans wearing Richardson's No. 33 jersey. It was the largest crowd since the team started tracking them seven years ago. There have been plenty of promising developments so far: Weeden has impressed, Josh Gordon has shown promise, and Mohamed Massaquoi is the most improved player in camp.
But a few weeks into camp the bad news started piling up: First was LB Chris Gocong's season-ending Achilles injury, then news of Richardson being sidelined (the Browns are still hopeful he'll be available for the opener after arthroscopic surgery on his knee), then Joe Haden's possible suspension for violating the league substance abuse policy.
You thought all the love and optimism could last? These are the Browns, after all.
2. The run defense without Phil Taylor? A serious problem. The Browns were dealt a serious blow when the 2011 first-round pick was put on the PUP list after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. The Browns think Taylor might return in the first half of the season, perhaps as soon as Week 7 at Indianapolis, but this is a significant loss for a run defense that ranked 30th a year ago. The day I was in camp the unit gave up several long runs to Browns running backs -- this delighted the crowd, but the way the front seven has looked this summer must be a concern for defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. Entering this season the Browns looked poised to improve with the addition of Frostee Rucker, but Taylor's injury is a major setback for a line where three of the starting front four have missed time because of injuries.
3. Weeden is the starter ... but Colt McCoy is having a solid camp. "I'm seeing him do things in camp that he didn't a year ago," coach Pat Shurmur said of McCoy, now entering his third year. No, the Browns coach didn't surprise anyone when he named Weeden his starting quarterback before the team's first preseason game on Aug. 10. And Cleveland may well trade McCoy before the season kicks off. But if McCoy is still shuffling around as Weeden's struggling badly early, there will be loud calls for McCoy to get a shot after what's been a promising camp for the third-year Longhorn.
McCoy's best chance to find playing time is in Cleveland, not on another team where he'd be a forgotten back-up. "I feel like what we're trying to do is slowing down for me. ... I know where my guys are going to be," he said. "I think that's just part of a natural progression of playing quarterback and being a year in the same system and having an offseason. I think all those things are positives."
Greg Little, wide receiver. Yes, he lead the team in receptions and yards as a rookie, but Little was also maddening to watch --- he had 13 drops, second in the league. So far, though, the former Tar Heel, who dropped 11 pounds over the offseason thanks to an improved diet, has been one of the positives in camp. Weeden and Little showed good chemistry in their second preseason game on Thursday; Little caught four passes for 45 yards. At Oklahoma State, Weeden latched onto one receiver, Justin Blackmon. In Cleveland, Little is by far the best candidate to be Weeden's guy.
Brad Childress, offensive coordinator. After five seasons in Minnesota, Chilly is here with the Browns, where he's one of three former head coaches on Shurmur's staff (Jauron is the defensive coordinator and Ray Rhodes is a defensive assistant.) Shurmur will still call the plays on offense, but Childress will play a pivotal role in steering the historically young offense and navigating Weeden through his first pro season. (Childress certainly has a familiarity with gunslinging quarterbacks.) Remember: before his embattled run in Minnesota, Childress did great things with Donovan McNabb as the quarterback coach in Philadelphia.
The Browns can't catch a break. They have the third-hardest strength of schedule, the toughest for a non-playoff team. Cleveland's opening stretch is the most brutal: after a home game in Philly, it plays three of the next four games on the road, and all against playoff teams (Giants, Ravens, Bengals). The finish? The Browns close the season on the road against Peyton Manning in Denver and Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.